Zymergen aims to accelerate biopolymers development and scale-up – co-founder

Joseph Chang


NEW YORK (ICIS)–US-based bio-based technology start-up Zymergen plans to speed up new product development in biopolymers and other materials for the electronics, consumer care and other sectors with superior characteristics, its chief science officer and co-founder said on Thursday.

“We expect a renaissance in materials science by virtue of using the chemical diversity available to us from biology. We have a catalogue of over 75,000 biomolecules for us to make use of, and the overlap between those and what you can go out and buy commercially from petrochemical sources is minuscule,” said Zach Serber, in an interview with ICIS.

“It’s fundamentally a different chemical space than what people are currently relying upon. We are definitely trying to create materials with performance features above and beyond the status quo to enable functionalities that just cannot be achieved today, and open up new product categories,” he added.

Zymergen on 22 April raised $500m through an up-sized initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq exchange, giving it an IPO price-based valuation of around $3bn. Shares were priced at $31, and closed the day at $37.65.

The company’s goal is to launch new products in about half the time and 1/10th of the cost of traditional chemicals and materials. It estimates the timeline and cost of launching products to be roughly five years and $50m, according to its S-1 filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Zymergen’s first product targeted for commercialisation is a novel polyimide optical film called Hyaline to be used in flexible electronic displays in products such as smart phones and tablets.

It was launched in December 2020 and is in the process of being qualified by a number of potential customers. Commercial sales are expected this year, said Serber.

“Qualification is well under way with many of them, and we are optimistic we are going to get orders soon of sizeable quantities,” he noted.

Photo credit: Zymergen

To accelerate launch, Zymergen introduced Hyaline with a non-fermentation produced biomolecule sourced from a third party but is developing commercial-scale processes to produce the molecule through fermentation at sufficient volumes and costs. It expects this process to be complete in 2022.

A key differentiator of Hyaline versus existing polyimide films such as Kapton is optical transparency, Zymergen’s co-founder noted.

“Kapton has similar durability, thermal properties, conductive properties but is amber in colour and thus completely unsuitable for anything you want to see through,” said Serber.

Zymergen’s novel bio-polyimide is meant to enable the production of flexible electronics on a wide scale. The company in 2019 partnered with Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical to develop next generation electronic films.

“People have been talking about the promise of flexible electronics for a good long time. But where are our devices? Where are our products? A major sticking point has been the materials employed – there haven’t been good solutions,” said Serber.

“The film Hyaline is particularly good for embedding silver nanowires to enable touch sensing. Future films that we develop will have a glass-like hardness to allow it to actually be used to replace the glass on the surface of the display,” he added.

The company envisions adapting materials properties as needed with other bio-monomers to develop a franchise of films where it can tune the performance features to particular markets.

“The nimbleness, the quickness as well as the relative low expense of doing so given our platform is going to be a huge differentiator for us to develop new markets and take market share,” said Serber.

Zymergen’s platform integrates molecular biology, chemistry, materials science, lab automation systems, software applications, unique databases and machine learning algorithms, according to its S-1 filing.

The platform is designed to identify and create novel biomolecules to be the basis of new materials with improved performance characteristics, insert genes into a host microbe that produces the target molecules and develop and scale up a process to produce the molecules economically at scale.

On scaling up, the company plans to use CMOs (contract manufacturing organisations) to produce commercial volumes, keeping to a research-focused, capital-light model.

Zymergen is also working on novel insect repellents and UV blockers for sunscreen.

These categories fit with the mission of Zymergen, which is to “offer solutions that don’t require someone to choose between their own well being and the well being of the environment”, said Serber.

“It is a misconception of most people that good products are damaging to the environment or conversely that an environmentally sensitive product is an inferior product. From a scientific perspective, that is a false association,” he noted.

“By tapping into the molecular diversity, we can do amazing things that just cannot be done with classic petroleum synthesis and that offer superior performance,” said Serber.

Thus, the company is focused on developing new and superior products rather than drop-in replacements, he added.

Zymergen also is developing a process to convert waste polyethylene (PE) plastics into monomers.

“We have microbes in-house now that can subsist entirely on PE as a carbon source, as a sole source of energy. That’s astonishing. We are also coaxing those organisms into turning that PE and the carbon from it into higher products, and there’s a future in which we can use PE garbage as a feedstock for creating up-cycled higher value products – new monomers for new polymers,” said Serber.

“We have to improve the rates and efficiencies for sure, but it is in our future and it’s an exciting one. It’s one of the projects I’m most excited about,” he added.

Interview article by Joseph Chang


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